Thoughts on women’s rights and our work in the museum

I know I am not alone in being depressed and appalled by the erosion of women’s rights in this country and around the world. Rape is used as a tool of power, terror, and abuse in war zones in Europe and Africa. Women are forced from their jobs and girls are turned away from schools in Afghanistan. In the US court rulings and new legislation strip control of reproductive and health decisions from women. The current atmosphere of intolerance encompasses legislation negatively impacting LGBTQ+ individuals, and the banning and censoring of books, to mention just two more troubling issues.

Simone Leigh, No Face (Crown Heights), 2018, Terracotta, graphite ink, salt-fired porcelain, and epoxy, 20 in x 8 in; 50.8 cm x 20.32 cm, Director’s Discretionary Fund, 2019

In my role as Director of The Phillips Collection, I want to share some thoughts about these troubling issues, and how our museum reflects and embraces our mission driven values of diversity, equity, access, and inclusion that are so boldly stated in our strategic plan, crafted and adopted by staff and board leadership, and that continues to guide our work in all ways. Our diversity values impact our workforce, our hiring, our institutional culture, our board of trustees, our collecting policies, the focus of our exhibitions and programs in the museum and in the community.

Our collecting policy explicitly embraces adding diverse voices—people of color and women. I want to mention just a few of the women that are now represented in our collection, acquired within the past ten years or so (by no means intended as a comprehensive list): Jae Ko, Kate Shepherd, Arlene Shechet, Zilia Sánchez, Nekisha Durrett, Ranjani Shettar, Nara Park, Zoë Charlton, Renée Stout, Marta Pérez García, Mequitta Ahuja, Janet Taylor Pickett, Barbara Liotta, Regi Müller, Tayo Heuser, Linn Meyers, Alyson Shotz, Jean Meisel, Jennifer Wen Ma, Helen C. Frederick, Bettina Pousttchi, Jeanne Silverthorne, Sandra Cinto, Julia Wachtel. I have been true to this goal of diversification in many of the purchases made with the Director’s Discretionary funding including works by Simone Leigh, Dindga McCannon, and the complete portfolio of the Guerilla Girls.

Nekisha Durrett with her artwork Airshaft (2021) in the bridges of The Phillips Collection. Photo: Brendan Canty

Many of these artists were featured in Vesela Sretenović’s Intersections exhibition series that was inaugurated in 2009, or from projects curated by Klaus Ottmann or Adrienne Childs, among others. The acquisition of the work by Zilia Sánchez resulted from the major monographic exhibition that Vesela organized in 2019 that traveled to New York and Ponce. Our exhibition of the Debra and Dennis Scholl collection of contemporary Australian Aboriginal women artists resulted in a stunning gift of six ceremonial poles. Marta Pérez García’s work entered the collection from our centennial community juried exhibit Inside Outside Upside Down, (curated by Elsa Smithgall and Camille Brown with Renée Stout) an introduction that resulted in her current Intersections exhibition Restos-Traces.

Marta Pérez García, Restos-Traces, 2021-2022, photo by AK Blythe

Our programming has also reflected women’s rights issues. Programs can be platforms for learning, exchange, and participation. In 2018 we mounted a solo installation by Australian artist, Halcyon fellow, Georgia Saxelby, To Future Women. Installed at the one-year anniversary of the Women’s March of January 2017, this project involved a community making, participatory letter writing activity, resulting in a time capsule of hundreds of expressions of anger, hope, sorrow, and solemn reflection. On February 14, 2018, Violence Against Women Day, we staged a panel discussion that brought an array of voices to the stage. How appropriate that this summer we have hosted Marta Pérez García’s powerful and disturbing Restos-Traces exhibition that confronts us with the resilience and strength of women who have survived domestic violence. Later this month, as the exhibition reaches its conclusion, programming will allow our communities to convene for further discussion, growth, and healing. In addition, I recall the 2020 annual Artists of Conscience Forum with the theme of “Women, Race and Representation,” celebrating the creativity of women highlighted throughout the Intersections series.

Installation image of Zilia Sánchez’s Juana de Arco (Joan of Arc), 1987

In 2020 we engaged in a heated debate about whether to install Black Lives Matter banners on our façade. We heeded the advice of then Chief Diversity Officer, Makeba Clay, that we should first “show the receipt,” and kept on doing our work towards diversity and inclusion, rather than making a performative gesture. Later that year we installed a work by conceptual artist Jenny Holzer which included two large banners “Moral Injury” and “So Vote.”  For me, that remains the key message and opportunity. It applies no matter what any individual’s opinion might be. In previous years we have hosted voter registration drives and citizenship ceremonies, activities we will continue to embrace. Our support of these activities seems especially important in a time when political forces are attempting to thwart the right of enfranchisement of the citizens of our country.

Very soon we plan to hold internal museum wide discussions with the participation of artist-activists with whom we have worked before. My hope is that this forum might afford a safe platform for a rich exchange of ideas and proposals. Additionally, next month internal staff will commence with the Diversity Intergroup Dialogue Series (DIDS). These sessions will afford each of us an opportunity to delve further in topics that reflect DEAI areas and methods to increase our cultural sensitivity.

Public programs will be announced in the near future.

We hope you continue to join us on our journey.

Regina Pilawuk Wilson, Syaw (Fishnet), 2014

A New Perspective on the Rebuild of Our Steinway

In December 2015 we posted a video by H. Paul Moon about the painstaking rebuild by PianoCraft of our Steinway piano that lives in the Music Room. This major and sorely needed renovation of this precious instrument used lumber from the Sitka spruce, wood that is highly prized by musical instrument makers. This work was transformative, and our rebuilt piano has been played by many renowned and emerging pianists through our fantastic music program.

A recent front page Washington Post story caught my eye. It featured a large two column above-and-below-the-fold color photo of a Sitka spruce in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest on Prince of Wales Island off the pan handle of the state of Alaska. The reporter was Juliet Eilperin. Her story was not about Steinway pianos but rather about the tug of war between the market value of a 180-foot sitka spruce as timber (around 6,000 board feet of timber worth around $17,500) and its value as climate change mitigator capturing carbon dioxide (holding around 12 metric tons of carbon and another 1.4 tons in the roots). The article states that the Tongass National Forest “holds the equivalent of 9.9 billion tons of CO2–nearly twice what the United States emits from burning fossil fuels each year.” Since the US purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, the value of the forest has been exploited to produce lumber, paper, rayon and other products. Preservationists have fought the building of roads and the pollution of paper mills. The indigenous Haida and Tlingit nations, drawing on an old and deep understanding of the resources of the forest, rivers, and ocean, argue that the old growth forests are essential for the landscape’s survival and also for their way of life. What are the solutions? To protect the forests by selling carbon credits to oil and gas companies, to foster a more balanced economy that depends not on industrial scale timber industry but on an intricate balance of Alaska native and small operator lumber companies, tourism, fishing, craft, and many other small industries.

This thoughtful, in-depth article brought me a new and unexpected appreciation of our beautiful Steinway piano. From now on I will marvel not only at its physical beauty, its auditory excellence, and of course the compelling art installed in the Music Room, but also at the magnificence and importance of a 500-year-old Sitka spruce to the ecological health of the planet and to the holistic well-being of the native peoples of Alaska. I will also pay tribute to the Piscataway and Anacostan native peoples of our DC region, on whose unceded land we live and work.

Happy 100th Birthday, Phillips Collection!

“Art is part of the social purpose of the world and a gallery can be a meeting place of many minds, harmonized by a genuine respect for the spirit of art, which is none other than the spirit of pleasure in the exchange of different attitudes and sensibilities.”—Duncan Phillips, A Collection Still in the Making, 1931

“This is a time when museums are needed even more, not only because they’re places that broaden the way we understand things and see things but also because in many ways, at their best, they’re part of the glue that holds communities together.”Lonnie Bunch, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, October 14, 2021

Mayor Muriel Bowser has proclaimed November 12, 2021, “The Phillips Collection Day” in honor of our centennial.

When the Phillips Memorial Gallery opened in 1921, it comprised one room and 237 paintings. The Phillips family lived in the building then, welcoming visitors into their home. 100 years later, The Phillips Collection, now with nearly 6,000 works of art and expanded buildings, is still home to more than 120,000 visitors each year. In hearing your favorite stories and memories, I know the Phillips is a special place for so many. While we have greatly extended our outreach globally, there are longtime DC residents who cherish the museum for its uniquely intimate, Washington experience. We hope that more people will be able to have these enriching encounters with art, for many more years to come. From 1921 to 2021, we have championed the power of museums to educate and build communities.

Celebrate with us at our Birthday Party today! Visit PhillipsCollection.org/events to make a reservation.

Despite myriad challenges, we have had a full centennial year so far. We showcased our collection and featured recent acquisitions with Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century. Our juried invitational Inside Outside, Upside Down and Community in Focus project made us smile and cry reflecting on all that we have experienced this past 20 months. We presented works by beloved artists like Jacob Lawrence, and contemporary voices like Marley Dawson, Victor Ekpuk, and Nekisha Durrett. We endowed the position of Horning Chair for Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion, a powerful indication of our commitment to DEAI work. We have presented Duncan Phillips Lectures by Lonnie Bunch and Arlene Dávila (stay tuned for our final lecture from Elizabeth Alexander in January), had conversations with collectors and artists, and showcased the best of traditional and new chamber music. We have engaged with audiences of all ages (from our family workshops to our Creative Aging program with older adults) and continue our work with PK-12 students and teachers throughout the region.

It is especially fitting that our fall exhibitions honor DC icons David Driskell and Alma Thomas, two artists and educators who led the Washington creative space for many decades. They knew how important it is to have art—bright, bold, colorful art—in our world, just as Duncan Phillips did. I am humbled to shepherd this wonderful institution, and very proud of all that has been achieved over 100 years, creating a dynamic institution dedicated to Duncan Phillips’s vision to help the world “see differently” as artists see.

Thank you for celebrating “The Phillips Collection Day” with us!

Dorothy Kosinski